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  • Identifying a Good Game School

    [03.30.10]
    - Ian Schreiber and Lewis Pulsipher

  •  Community

    Question to ask: Is there a community of game students/developers at the school?

    What to look for: Is there a game club at the school (for game players; there may also be a game development club)? Is there a listserv or other means such as Facebook that the school uses to communicate regularly with all of its game students? Is there a place all students can post to? Are student activities encouraged? Is there some diversity at the school (in particular, what is the percentage of female and minority students)?

    Most "Millennials" (those up to about 27 years of age) thrive on community (MySpace, Facebook, MMOs, etc.). They expect to work together, and to share experiences, even simple things like the high scores they get on video games. Does the school encourage this, or try to suppress it?

    What to watch out for: It would be astonishing that a school that has a thriving game development program has no game club. This is one of the best venues for an instructor to get to know students, of course, and vice versa. This can include an official, educational, "game development" club, or a club where people have fun playing games voluntarily. Lack of either can imply either that the school does not support students learning outside of class, or that the students are kept so busy with work that there is simply no time for recreational activities, or that all student organizations require a faculty advisor and none of the faculty have the time or interest. None of these things bode well.

    If you visit the school is there a large (4 by 8 feet) unlocked bulletin board outside the most commonly used areas, where students can communicate with one another and faculty can communicate with them?

    Does the school communicate with all students via a listserv or Facebook account? Or are students mostly "in the dark" about what's happening? Announcements on course management software (e.g. Blackboard) don't qualify.

    What about the Web site for the department? Here teachers are severely constrained by school support, and that support appears to be quite poor in some cases. Often the site is out of date and dysfunctional. Perhaps there's an unofficial Web site (perhaps for the club) that is much more interesting.

    You can also ask if there are blogs, forums, or other kinds of media support for communication among students and faculty.

    You're going to be at the school for years. Do you want to feel "on your own," or do you want to feel like you're part of a group of fairly like-minded people striving for success?

    Quality of Student Projects

    We've already given a few things for you to consider when choosing a school, but we think it's worth including one thing you should not consider too much. One of the common themes of recruiters is to show off cool-looking student projects.

    Be wary of student projects. Some schools will gladly show off impressive-looking work from their past and present students, and the implication is "we'll show you how to make something cool like this." But this doesn't really tell you anything about the school itself.

    Every school has a few brilliant students who will produce phenomenal work, on their own, with or without faculty assistance. The work certainly reflects on the quality of that particular student, but may or may not have any correlation to the quality of the academic program.

    It's also easy to get distracted by quantity. Some schools have large programs and lots of students, so they will likely have more student work to show than a smaller school. Take the size of the program into account when evaluating student work.

    And when you watch a demo that you don't control (as at a conference), you can only judge by the flashiness of the game. It may look good and work well yet be a lousy game. If the game is intended to show off artwork, or perhaps programming, looking good and working well are what you want. If it's intended to show off game design, it's really hard to judge even if you can play the game for a while.

    Also be wary if the most impressive student work is more than a year or two old. Schools with quality programs and a steady stream of incoming students should be producing cool stuff every year. Showing one or two works from four years ago is an indication that the school just had a handful of outstanding students that year, not that they have a great program now.

    Lastly, if the student work isn't similar to your area of interest, that should be a red flag. For example, if you want to be a game designer or a programmer and the only student work available is animated video clips (not playable games), you're probably dealing with an art/animation program that doesn't focus on games.

    We're not saying you should ignore student work entirely. But treat it the way a hiring manager at a company would treat personal references for a job. The applicant chose their best references so of course they're all going to say great things, so this shouldn't really persuade you. But if someone applying for a position can't even find a decent friend or two that can say something nice without reservations, maybe that's a signal you should be looking elsewhere.

    Resources

    There are anonymous contribution Web sites that rate schools, like StudentsReview. As with Internet anonymous forums generally, such sites tend to bring out the negative and nasty side of people. Nonetheless, you can find food for thought, questions you should ask, and so forth. And it can be especially helpful when comparing several schools.

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